Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

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Lada Bakal

The Philanthropy Shortfall

On average, just 18 percent of adults in Russia engage in some form of charity, according to the Charities Aid Foundations. Only 6 percent of adults give money, and some 20 percent participate in volunteer work, while 32 percent give some type of direct assistance to those in need. In 2010, an estimated $3 billion was funneled to 107 Russian charities, not including long-term, multi-year support for projects.

There are 301 charity organizations in Russia, yet only 107 of them open their books for outside auditing. The turnover of these 107 organizations in 2010 was R23.4 billion. The largest sphere of activity was environmental protection: R3.6 billion, followed by health and medicine (R1.3 billion) and education (R524.1 million).

On the whole, Russia’s humanitarian ratings woefully inadequate and ranks 138th in the world, just above Egypt and Turkmenistan. Yet we should not forget that, thanks to the Bolsheviks ‘bizarre totalitarian experiment, the notion of humanitarianism was all but eradicated in Russian society. Thus, in modern Russia, philanthropy is really only in its infancy.

 Volunteerism: Modest but Growing

Volunteerism in Russia today is also abysmally low. But that is changing, and rather rapidly. In just the last year there has been a spate of actions indicating a waking of civil society: the nationwide cleanup (15,000 persons in 120 cities) initiated by blogger Sergei Dolya; Alexei Navalny’s donation drive for Rospil—a grass roots battle against corporate and governmental corruption; the defense of Moscow’s Khimki Forest; the public firefighting activity during the summer of 2010; the efforts of Moscow’s Dr. Liza Glinka to aid the poor and homeless; and the activation of websites liketogether.ru. Each successful initiative of this nature becomes an example to others, encouraging yet more collective action. As Denis Volkov recently noted in his Levada Center report, “Prospects for Civil Society in Russia,” based on interviews with leaders of non-governmental and civil organizations in 2010-2011, “It is significant that the number of citizen initiatives is growing, that more charitable, altruistic, and volunteer organizations directed at helping people and animals are being started up and are developing.”

Distrust of Non-Profits

An important factor restraining the growth of humanitarian activity in Russia, however, is the fact that Russians simply do not trust non-profits. Nearly 64 percent of Russians are convinced that the money they give to charities will not be used as designated. This is the legacy of charity actions like “The Federation Fund,” which in 2010 and 2011held gala concerts attended by glittering VIP stars from the West, at one of which Prime Minister Putin infamously sang Blueberry Hill in English (bit.ly/Putin sings). The recipient of millions of rubles from the state budget, the Federation Fund was reputed to be raising money for 20 medical clinics for children. Only later was it revealed that the Fund was not raising money for the clinics but merely raising awareness of their situation.

Oligarch Benevolence

Oil and metals magnate Viktor Vekselberg and his wife created the fund “Age of Good,” which focuses on healing psychological ailments. Nikolai Tsvetkov, president of the UralSib finance corporation, founded the Viktoria Fund, which aids children’s shelters. While the generosity of such funds is notable, it is also indicative of the limits to charity. None of the funds noted above advertises any giving to “civil society” or “human rights” causes. The imprisonment of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who gave some $60 million to civil society causes, serves as sufficient warning that humanitarians should keep their giving non-political.

Western Aid

At present, American and European governments and foundations finance human rights groups in Russia almost entirely. For example, Memorial, which preserves the memory of gulag victims, receives support from the Soros Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Adenauer Fund, the Solzhenitsyn Fund, and others. A spokesperson from Memorial said that donations from Russians, both private citizens and funds, are small and as a rule designated for research, education, and historical activities, not for human rights. All donations for human rights purposes given by Russian citizens, Memorial said, are made under conditions of strict anonymity. Helsinki Watch, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, also receives most all of its support from Western sources such as the European Community, the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute, and USAID. A source at Helsinki Watch reported that several persons approached the organization recently, interested in organizing fundraising campaign to support the organization’s basic mission. The money, as a rule small donations from private Russians, would be given anonymously. On the surface it appears as if the greater part of charitable giving in Russia is now being done by a handful of famous oligarch-businessmen. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that their activities may kick-start philanthropy in Russia.♦

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Lada Bakal, “The New Russian Philanthropy,” RussianLife 55 (January/February 2012), 54-59.

Lada Bakal, born in Kishinev, Moldova, and now living in Moscow, has been Russian Life photo editorsince 2009.